Editor’s note, May 5, 2023: Since this story published, Microsoft has officially affirmed its support for a right to repair bill in Washington state.
In March, Irene Plenefisch, a senior director of government affairs at Microsoft, sent an email to the eight members of the Washington state Senate’s Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee, which was about to hold a hearing to discuss a bill intended to facilitate the repair of consumer electronics.
Typically, when consumer tech companies reach out to lawmakers concerning right-to-repair bills — which seek to make it easier for people to fix their devices, thus saving money and reducing electronic waste — it’s because they want them killed. Plenefisch, however, wanted the committee to know that Microsoft, which is headquartered in Redmond, Washington, was on board with this one, which had already passed the Washington House.
“I am writing to state Microsoft’s support for E2SHB 1392,” also known as the Fair Repair Act, Plenefisch wrote in an email to the committee. “This bill fairly balances the interests of manufacturers, customers, and independent repair shops and in doing so will provide more options for consumer device repair.”
The Fair Repair Act stalled out a week later due to opposition from all three Republicans on the committee and Senator Lisa Wellman, a Democrat and former Apple executive. (Apple frequently lobbies against right-to-repair bills, and during a hearing, Wellman defended the iPhone maker’s position that it is already doing enough on repair.) But despite the bill’s failure to launch this year, repair advocates say Microsoft’s support — a notable first for a major U.S. tech company — is bringing other manufacturers to the table to negotiate the details of other right-to-repair bills for the first time.
“We are in the middle of more conversations with manufacturers being way more cooperative than before,” Nathan Proctor, who heads the U.S. Public Research Interest Group’s right-to-repair campaign, told Grist. “And I think Microsoft’s leadership and willingness to be first created that opportunity.”
Across a wide range of sectors, from consumer electronics to farm equipment, manufacturers attempt to monopolize repair of their devices by restricting access to spare parts, repair tools, and technical documentation. While manufacturers often claim that controlling the repair process limits cybersecurity and safety risks, they also financially benefit when consumers are forced to take their devices back to the manufacturer or upgrade due to limited repair options.
Right-to-repair bills would compel manufactures to make spare parts and information available to everyone. Proponents argue that making repair more accessible will allow consumers to use older products for longer, saving them money and reducing the environmental impact of technology, including both electronic waste and the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing new products.
But despite dozens of state legislatures taking up right-to-repair bills in recent years, very few of those bills have passed due to staunch opposition from device makers and the trade associations representing them. New York state passed the first electronics right-to-repair law in the country last year, but before the governor signed it, tech lobbyists convinced her to water it down through a series of revisions.
Like other consumer tech giants, Microsoft has historically fought right-to-repair bills while restricting access to spare parts, tools, and repair documentation to its network of “authorized” repair partners. In 2019, the company even helped kill a repair bill in Washington state. But in recent years the company has started changing its tune on the issue. In 2021, following pressure from shareholders, Microsoft agreed to take steps to facilitate the repair of its devices — a first for a U.S. company. Microsoft followed through on the agreement by expanding access to spare parts and service tools, including through a partnership with the repair guide site iFixit. The tech giant also commissioned a study that found repairing Microsoft products instead of replacing them can dramatically reduce both waste and carbon emissions.
Microsoft has also started engaging more cooperatively with lawmakers over right-to-repair bills. In late 2021 and 2022, the company met with legislators in both Washington and New York to discuss each state’s respective right-to-repair bill. In both cases, lawmakers and advocates involved in the bill negotiations described the meetings as productive. When the Washington state House introduced an electronics right-to-repair bill in January 2022, Microsoft’s official position on it was neutral — something that state representative and bill sponsor Mia Gregerson, a Democrat, called “a really big step forward” at a committee hearing.
Despite Microsoft’s neutrality, last year’s right-to-repair bill failed to pass the House amid opposition from groups like the Consumer Technology Association, a trade association representing numerous electronics manufacturers. Later that year, though, the right-to-repair movement scored some big wins. In June 2022, Colorado’s governor signed the nation’s first right-to-repair law, focused on wheelchairs. The very next day, New York’s legislature passed the bill that would later become the nation’s first electronics right-to-repair law.
When Washington lawmakers revived their right-to-repair bill for the 2023 legislative cycle, Microsoft once again came to the negotiating table. From state senator and bill sponsor Joe Nguyen’s perspective, Microsoft’s view was, “We see this coming, we’d rather be part of the conversation than outside. And we want to make sure it is done in a thoughtful way.”
Proctor, whose organization was also involved in negotiating the Washington bill, said that Microsoft had a few specific requests, including that the bill require repair shops to possess a third-party technical certification and carry insurance. It was also important to Microsoft that the bill only cover products manufactured after the bill’s implementation date, and that manufacturers be required to provide the public only the same parts and documents that their authorized repair providers already receive. Some of the company’s requests, Proctor said, were “tough” for advocates to concede on. “But we did, because we thought what they were doing was in good faith.”
In early March, just before the Fair Repair Act was put to a vote in the House, Microsoft decided to support it.
“Microsoft has consistently supported expanding safe, reliable, and sustainable options for consumer device repair,” Plenefisch told Grist in an emailed statement. “We have, in the past, opposed specific pieces of legislation that did not fairly balance the interests of manufacturers, customers, and independent repair shops in achieving this goal. HB 1392, as considered on the House floor, achieved this balance.”
While the bill cleared the House by a vote of 58 to 38, it faced an uphill battle in the Senate, where either Wellman or one of the bill’s Republican opponents on the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee would have had to change their mind for the Fair Repair Act to move forward. Microsoft representatives held meetings with “several legislators,” Plenefisch said, “to urge support for HB 1392.”
“That’s probably the first time any major company has been like, ‘This is not bad,’” Nguyen said. “It certainly helped shift the tone.”
Microsoft’s engagement appears to have shifted the tone beyond Washington state as well. As other manufacturers became aware that the company was sitting down with lawmakers and repair advocates, “they realized they couldn’t just ignore us,” Proctor said. His organization has since held meetings about proposed right-to-repair legislation in Minnesota with the Consumer Technology Association and TechNet, two large trade associations that frequently lobby against right-to-repair bills and rarely sit down with advocates.
“A lot of conversations have been quite productive” around the Minnesota bill, Proctor said. TechNet declined to comment on negotiations regarding the Minnesota right-to-repair bill, or whether Microsoft’s support for a bill in Washington has impacted its engagement strategy. The Consumer Technology Association shared letters it sent to legislators outlining its reasons for opposing the bills in Washington and Minnesota, but it also declined to comment on specific meetings or on Microsoft.
While Minnesota’s right-to-repair bill is still making its way through committees in the House and Senate, in Washington state, the Fair Repair Act’s opponents were ultimately unmoved by Microsoft’s support. Senator Drew MacEwen, one of the Republicans on the Energy, Environment, and Technology Committee who opposed the bill, said that Microsoft called his office to tell him the company supported the Fair Repair Act.
“I asked why after years of opposition, and they said it was based on customer feedback,” MacEwen told Grist. But that wasn’t enough to convince MacEwen, who sees device repairability as a “business choice,” to vote yes.
“Ultimately, I do believe there is a compromise path that can be reached but will take a lot more work,” MacEwen said.
Washington state representative and bill sponsor Mia Gregerson wonders if Microsoft could have had a greater impact by testifying publicly in support of the bill. While Gregerson credits the company with helping right-to-repair get further than ever in her state this year, Microsoft’s support was entirely behind the scenes.
“They did a lot of meetings,” Gregerson said. “But if you’re going to be first in the nation on this, you’ve got to do more.”
Microsoft declined to say why it didn’t testify in support of the Fair Repair Act, or whether that was a mistake. The company also didn’t say whether it would support future iterations of the Washington state bill, or other state right-to-repair bills.
But it signaled to Grist that it might. And in doing so, Microsoft appears to have taken its next small step out of the shadows.
“We encourage all lawmakers considering right to repair legislation to look at HB 1392 as a model going forward due to its balanced approach,” Plenefisch said.